The home secretary, Priti Patel, has said she will ask the BBC and other media to reflect on their language after the term “migrant” was used to describe people who drowned in the Channel.
In the House of Commons, Brendan O’Hara, the SNP MP for Argyll and Bute, said he was “absolutely appalled” to hear a presenter on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news refer to the Channel victims as migrants, which he argued was dehumanising, and he invited the home secretary to join him in asking the media to reflect on their choice of language.
In response, Patel said: “Even during the Afghan operations and Operation Pitting [the Kabul evacuation] I heard a lot of language that quite frankly seemed to be inappropriate around people who were fleeing. So yes, I will.”
But her condemnation was met with accusations of hypocrisy after years of controversial rhetoric from Conservative politicians including former prime ministers.
The home secretary has most recently adopted the term “economic migrants”, a label favoured by the likes of the hard-right campaigner Nigel Farage but seen by charities as an attempt to undermine the motives of those who risk their lives to cross from France.
She has claimed that 70% of people who come to the UK via small boats are “single men who are effectively economic migrants” and “not genuine asylum seekers”.
The Refugee Council pointed out that in fact the opposite is true: nearly two-thirds of the arrivals are deemed to be genuine refugees. Analysis using Home Office data and requests under freedom of information laws shows 61% are likely to be allowed to stay after claiming asylum.
In January four charities – Freedom from Torture, Hope Not Hate, Detention Action and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants – wrote to Patel urging her to temper her “misleading and inflammatory” rhetoric, which they argued was escalating far-right hatred towards asylum seekers.
In 2015 David Cameron as prime minister was heavily criticised for speaking of a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”. He later defended his use of the term “swarm” and said he was determined to keep out people living in the Calais camps as they attempted to reach Britain, likening some of them to burglars. “They are economic migrants and they want to enter Britain illegally and the British people and I want to make sure our borders are secure and you can’t break into Britain without permission,” he said.
As Cameron’s home secretary, Theresa May – as she attempted to prevent an exodus of Tory voters to Farage’s Ukip – coined the phrase “hostile environment” for her flagship immigration policy that set the backdrop to the pre-EU referendum years.
Then came Boris Johnson as prime minister, a politician who has likened Muslim dress to letterboxes, referred to Commonwealth citizens as “piccaninnies” and drew inferences about the Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry.
Under his leadership the Tory parliamentary party’s Common Sense Group emerged, a 25-strong unit of libertarian Conservative MPs who campaign on a wide range of issues and recently branded people arriving in the UK as “invading migrants”.